I am a 70-year-old woman and have had problems with my back for 40 years. In my thirties I was twice put in a body plaster for six weeks for slipped discs. Recently I have begun suffering with sciatica and would like to know of any exercises that would help to strengthen my back again.
As you have a history of back problems, your first port of call really should be to an osteopath or “sports” physiotherapist to check out whether there is an underlying problem needing attention. Overwhelmingly, back pain is caused by a combination of muscular weakness and very minor damage such as a muscle strain from making a bad movement. Unfortunately the brain is notoriously unreliable at interpreting pain messages from the lower back, so we end up feeling severe pain with injuries that are literally microscopically small and which will heal perfectly well by themselves.
But once you’ve had problems with your back, such as a “slipped disc” (usually called herniation or prolapse these days), your back is more vulnerable to a repeat. As a post-menopausal woman, you should also check your bone health with your GP. Osteoporosis (weakened bones) affects up to half of women at your age, and small back fractures often go undiagnosed.
If you have had another slipped disc, you’ll most certainly not be put in a body plaster again! We now understand that keeping still and doing nothing is just about the worst way to treat most back pain, including disc problems. It’s really important to keep on the move, to prevent everything from stiffening or seizing up and maintain supporting muscles in reasonable shape.
Assuming there’s no underlying issue, here’s some tips for how to help your back.
- For pain relief, a very good position is the crook lie: lying face up on a carpet or mat, with your knees bent and shins and feet resting on a kitchen chair
- Strong abdominal muscles are crucial to support your lower back. Sit slumped forwards in a kitchen chair, elbows resting on thighs. Now cough and feel the tummy muscle below your belly button contract. Cough again and pull that muscle inwards towards your spine as hard as you can. Hold for 5 and release. Keep practising this, increasing the length of the hold, breathing all the time. Aim for 30-second holds, while breathing. Then practise lightly pulling in that muscle whenever you are out shopping, sitting watching TV, picking things up, washing up, lying in bed etc. Click here for the full exercise
- Back raises strengthen the long back muscles very effectively. Lie face down, elbows bent and palms flat by your ears. Check that your front hips and pubic bone are lightly pressing into the ground. Raise your chest and head away from the ground, pressing palms lightly to help, and hold for 5. Lower carefully down and repeat. As you raise away, pull in that lower abs muscle. Keep breathing throughout. Repeat 10 times, rest, then do up to four more sets throughout the day – every day. Click here for the full exercise. You’ll notice improvements within a month.